By Aaron Copland
Born November 14, 1900, in Brooklyn, NY; Died December 2, 1990, in North Tarrytown, NY
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In the early decades of the twentieth century, American classical music began in earnest to break free from its European influences. Like others of his day, Aaron Copland eschewed the melodrama and bombast of the Wagnerian-era musical vernacular, seeking instead a fresher music, with rhythmic experimentation and less dependence on symmetrical melody lines. He would eventually emerge as the first great – and beloved- American composer to develop a “serious” musical language that was indeed distinctly American in character. That language was ultimately the result of a conscious blending of his attentions to the popular music he encountered in his youth, indigenous and Latin-American folk music, and the jazz he passionately enjoyed while in New York and Paris. His prolific musical output spanned an array of genres and venues that went beyond conventional concert settings to include opera, film scores (Of Mice and Men, 1939; Our Town, 1940; The Red Pony, 1948; The Heiress, 1949), and ballet.
Copland’s music of the late 1920s was “modernist” in its embrace of angular melodic lines and irregular rhythms. By the mid-1930s, however, his efforts reflected more his ongoing concerns in broadening the audience for American music. His concentrated abstract style began to noticeably relax into a more personal, even playful idiom that incorporated folk influences, as in the ballets Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942).
In the summer of 1942 he accepted a $500 commission to compose the score for a ballet by dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, the grande dame of Modern Dance. The idea for the commission began with a letter of request from Erik Hawkins, a dancer in Graham’s company (and who would later become her husband), to the eminent arts benefactor Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Graham submitted a detailed (and as yet untitled) script for her ballet, in which she would dance the lead role, to Copland with the introductory thought, “This has to do with living in a new town, someplace where the first fence has just gone up.”
The pairing of the creative forces of Graham and Copland proved to be one of the most successful artistic collaborations of the twentieth century. For Graham, the work represented a pinnacle in her work during the 1930s and 40s that addressed American themes. Similarly, Copland’s reputation was solidified in his pursuit of establishing a tradition of music in and about American life. The widely acclaimed Appalachian Spring score earned him the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Music. In a 1944 letter to Coolidge, Graham noted that the finished score was “…clear, open, and essentially Copland.”
Copland composed the music, over the period of a year, under his own working title, “Ballet for Martha.” Shortly before the ballet’s premiere on October 30, 1944, at the Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., Graham offered the title Appalachian Spring, inspired by a Hart Crane poem titled The Bridge, though the spring in the poem referred not to the season, but a water source. The original program notes described the ballet as the story of 19th century newlyweds celebrating “…building a new house with joy and love and prayer; by a revivalist and his followers in their shouts of exaltation; by a pioneering woman with her dreams of the Promised Land.”
Due to the limited space for orchestra in the Coolidge Auditorium, the original score was for a smaller chamber ensemble of 13 instruments. In 1945 Copland developed the more familiar concert suite for full orchestra, wherein the ballet’s 14 movements were re-worked into eight sections, eliminating approximately 11 minutes from the original 35-minute performance.
The serene opening sets an idyllic, pastoral mood as each of the narrative’s characters is introduced through a simple, expanding three-note theme. Then an energetic burst leads into a gentler dance for bride and groom, followed by a faster passage suggesting lively square dancing, followed again with even faster music to indicate what Copland noted as the bride’s contemplation of motherhood with “extremes of joy and fear and wonder.”
In the seventh section, a solo clarinet introduces the suite’s best-known melody woven into a set of five variations on a Shaker theme. The section was inspired by a 19th-century collection of Shaker melodies originally compiled by Edward D. Andrews under the title “The Gift to be Simple.” The melody, “Simple Gifts,” from 1848, was borrowed practically in its entirety, while the other folk-like segments of the suite, though they certainly exude period authenticity, were fashioned by Copland. Copland went on to publish separate arrangements of the seventh section, under the title “Variations on a Shaker Melody” for band (1958) as well as full orchestra (1967).
The suite ends with muted strings in a meditative, hymn-like echo of the opening theme. Copland’s notes for the closing section describe the bride as taking her place in the community as she settles with her husband “quiet and strong in their new house.”